Guarding Our Speech
by Mark Ross
“Where words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19). Scriptural warnings about the control of our tongues are many and urgent. yet for all their importance, they are too often disregarded by otherwise sincere and devoted Christians. Discussions of politics are especially notorious. Few people hesitate to represent candidates of the opposing party in the worst possible light. Did you know that all Democrats are left-wing liberals bent on turning the whole U.S. economy into a socialist state? Did you know that all Republicans are extreme right-wing conservatives who have no compassion for the poor or any sense of social responsibility? These and other “truths” like them are purportedly discerned simply from a person’s party affiliation. It is not necessary to meet any of these people or speak with them about their views at any length.
Our Lord has taught us that by the measure we judge we shall be judged (Matt. 7:1–2). One would think that such a warning would encourage us toward the most generous view of others that could be taken. Even within the church, we adopt the patterns of the world and allow our speech toward one another to be corrupted. We would be shocked and grieved to learn that anyone among us was contemplating the murder of a fellow believer, and yet our Lord has taught us that the sixth commandment is violated by thoughts and words as well as actions:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21–22)
Hellfire for calling someone a fool? We find it hard to believe, I guess, and we are willing to take our chances on a less controlled policy of speech. The Lord’s brother James certainly got the point: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Worthless. That is a rather damning judgment against one’s religion. In chapter 3 of his epistle, James develops this thought further: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (v. 6).
The dangers connected with our tongues are part of James’ warning that not many of us should become teachers, for those who teach will be judged with greater strictness (3:1). As a professor of theology, I ought certainly to heed this warning. How easy it is for theologians, whether amateur or professional, to denounce uncharitably those with whom they disagree. To be sure, doctrinal error must be exposed. Scripture requires it. The “essentials” of the faith must not be reduced to the barest minimum while the remainder is left to personal preference. The whole counsel of God must be taught, and deviations from it must be opposed. Teachers must guard the good deposit entrusted to them (1 Tim. 6:20), and we must contend for the faith delivered once for all (Jude 3).
At the same time (for keeping one commandment never relieves us of the obligation to keep the others), we must be sure our speech does not contain unwholesome words but only that which builds up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29). We must always hold fast to the truth, but how we hold fast to it is just as important.
James’ warning might be expanded for today’s technology: “Not many of you should become bloggers, my brothers, for you know that they who blog will be judged with greater strictness.” Blogging, message boards, tweeting, and more are quick and easy ways of putting out information. They are very public forums. But they can be pitfalls. Nothing should be posted that is not true, and far too often the criticisms posted of others are without sufficient basis for making public accusations. Even when what is said is true, it may not be appropriate to put out that information to the whole world. Whatever we wish that others do to us, we should do to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7:12).
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Bridling our tongues will require a change in our hearts as well as an effort to sift what comes through our mouths. As ever, it is love that proves most effective: love for our neighbor, love for our enemies, love for the household of God especially. Then our words will be pleasing in the sight of our great God and Savior.